Numerous new projects are currently underway to help small and mid-sized farmers get their fruits and vegetables directly into the hands of foodservice operators, farmers markets and retailers.
The projects also include initiatives that help to educate consumers on the source of their food via avenues that enable them to learn about the farmers -- and in some cases, even interact with them. Most projects are using technology to streamline the process, and growers everywhere are taking advantage of the opportunities.
One such project is being run by FarmsReach, a San Francisco-based company that is using technology to bring farmers and buyers together. The company was founded in 2007, and although it currently focuses on the San Francisco area, it plans to roll out the program to other areas in the country in 2010.
Tom Grace, vice president of programs for FarmsReach, explained that the program is an on-line marketplace for farmers, retailers and foodservice operators that provides a venue for them to connect. It was developed in response to the locally grown demand.
"The typical farmer that registers with FarmsReach has enough production to serve numerous areas and venues," said Mr. Grace. "It was officially launched on the web (www.farmsreach.com) last spring, and it is showing good involvement and success."
Mr. Grace thinks of Farms_Reach as an eBay for buyers and sellers of locally grown produce. For example, a chef at a San Francisco restaurant might log on to the site at the close of his shift to place his produce orders for the next couple of days. He views what growers have available and places his orders.
Using FarmsReach is a simple process. Producers create their stall where they list food, pricing, packaging and other relevant information. They update their stall continually to ensure that the items they have on hand are listed and which days they can deliver to specific locations. Once everything is ready, the producer opens his stall for business, and the produce is available immediately for buyers to search.
A buyer simply types in the name of the item he or she is seeking, and the web site presents a list of results. Buyers can refine a search to specific producers, markets or geographical ranges. When a buyer finds what he or she wants, the item is added to the cart. The buyer can purchase the same item from multiple vendors if needed.
FarmsReach then generates pick-lists and a calendar of upcoming deliveries and market pickups. The producer uses these to prepare his deliveries for buyers. It also provides a list of the day's deliveries, which the grower can use to plan the delivery route for the day. Using one of the thousands of markets in the United States, buyers and sellers can coordinate order pickups.
At the market or delivery spot, the producer gives the buyer an invoice. The buyer can pay immediately or use the invoice number, along with FarmsReach reports, to handle accounting and payment.
"Just like eBay, the site is not selling the product for the farmers," said Mr. Grace. "They are selling it themselves. They choose which items to list, state their terms, such as price and minimum quantities, and they outline the transportation process, including delivery date. The farmer has complete control over marketing his produce."
FarmsReach is currently a free service, but Mr. Grace said that eventually it will charge a percentage of the transaction fee.
"We're not positioning ourselves as a broker," he added. "Our goal is to make the on-line process one that services growers and customers in their areas." Mr. Grace said that Farms_Reach has had some success to date, but it has discovered that it has to work with buyers and sellers to help educate them on how this market can be advantageous.
"We have around 100 farmers now registered, and a couple hundred buyers on the system," he said. "In a limited scope, we feel we're having great success. FarmsReach is a technology company, so it is an educational process for us to learn how people buy their produce and how farmers need to sell it."
Most of the registered users are restaurant chefs, according to Mr. Grace. "Their interest lies strongly in their desire to respond to their customers' interests for locally grown produce. We are also currently in talks with foodservice organizations that supply the health and university markets. Ultimately, we will be working with all levels of professionals in the produce industry. We are preparing for a major rollout campaign in 2010, and the story will be all about how we can help connect growers and customers."